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Can James Charles Win Back the Beauty Industry?

The beauty influencer is launching his own brand, Painted, part of a wider comeback effort after allegations of sexual harassment and racist tweets. But are consumers ready to forgive and forget?
James Charles is launching his newest brand after being dropped from beauty giant Morphe in 2021, following a series of sexual misconduct allegations.
James Charles is launching his newest brand after being dropped from beauty giant Morphe in 2021, following a series of sexual misconduct allegations. (Instagram/@painted.co)

James Charles says he’s been preparing his soon-to-launch makeup line, Painted, for four years. He’s had plenty of time to work on it lately.

The influencer has largely laid low since 2021, when he admitted to sending sexually explicit messages to two boys under the age of 18. Charles said he did not know their age when he communicated with them. The scandal derailed what had been a meteoric rise for the already controversy-prone influencer, who got his start in 2015 on YouTube and quickly became one of the most recognisable faces on the platform. The cosmetics brand Morphe cut ties, YouTube demonetised his channel and cut him loose as host of its series, “Instant Influencer.”

In a TikTok video Monday, James made no reference to his past when he gave his 38 million followers a 60-second rundown of the 10 shades of “extremely pigmented” cream paints that dry in 30 seconds. They’re packaged in paint tubes and offer the kind of full makeup, transformative look Charles was known for on YouTube. The tubes are priced affordably at $15 each and are intended to be used with a brush set, also sold by Charles.

Charles retains a substantial fan base on social media. But Painted is the biggest test yet of whether the influencer can win back fans he alienated two years ago, let alone the wider market of beauty shoppers.

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In a post-pandemic, post #MeToo era, can Charles mount a comeback?

A Scandal-Prone Star Is Born

Charles, alongside fellow beauty influencers Jeffree Star and Jaclyn Hill, had the beauty industry enraptured with YouTube tutorials they parlayed into collaborations with brands like Becca and Morphe. In 2016, Charles became the first male CoverGirl.

But it was arguably the drama — including feuds with fellow content creators — more than the looks that garnered the most attention. Charles’ controversies include racist tweets he posted about Africa and the Ebola virus in 2017 and a 2019 feud with influencer Tati Westbrook over gummy vitamins that was so hyperbolic it briefly broke out of the YouTube beauty bubble and into the mainstream media.

Back then, scandal sold beauty products. In 2018, Charles’ first collaboration with Morphe, The James Charles Palette, a selection of bright blue and purple shadows, sold out multiple times and set the template for countless limited-edition drops and influencer-led brands to come. Hill and Charles’ relationship with Morphe also helped propel that brand into a $2 billion company backed by private equity giant General Atlantic (Morphe’s parent, Forma Brands, filed for bankruptcy in January and was acquired by lenders for $690 million in March).

According to the creator marketing platform Creator IQ, Charles’ earned media value, a measure of engagement, for Morphe alone in 2018 was $28.4 million. Alexander Rawitz, director of content marketing for the firm, told The Business of Beauty that was “unheard of for a single brand-influencer partnership in the span of one year.”

Without the support of consumers or his biggest partners, Charles’ influence is a fraction of that today. As of 2023, his average yearly EMV per cosmetics brand was just $77,500.

A spokesperson for Charles did not respond to requests for comment.

Lesson Learned?

Charles wouldn’t be the first celebrity to bounce back from a seemingly career-ending scandal.

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After all, Johnny Depp remains a Dior fragrance ambassador even after a UK judge found allegations he abused Amber Heard to be “substantially true.”

Charles has not faced legal consequences for his sexual misconduct allegations. Instead, he was cancelled in the court of public opinion — a status he is doggedly fighting to change.

In 2021, he posted a YouTube video titled “An Open Conversation”, where he shared his version of the text exchanges. In a July interview with Cosmopolitan ahead of Painted’s launch, he spoke at length about the circumstances around his fall.

“Everybody makes mistakes; everybody fucks up. Don’t get me wrong — I definitely don’t think people should be able to do whatever they want and not be held responsible for it. It’s important that people be held accountable,” he told the magazine. “But I think it’s important that we allow people to grow and to learn. The idea that somebody fucks up and then their entire life and career and everything that they’ve ever worked for should be swept out from under their feet is just horrifying.”

In the age of social media, it can be hard to recover from allegations of racism, sexual harassment or worse. KVD Vegan Beauty, originally called Kat Von D Beauty, has struggled since founder Kat Von D (Katherine Von Drachenberg) departed the brand in 2020 following allegations of anti-semitism. Despite an overhaul by Kendo, the LVMH incubator behind Fenty Beauty that developed the line with Drachenberg, it never regained its footing.

Charles’ re-emergence raises questions with no easy answers: Does he get to be flawed? Does he get to make mistakes when he’s young? Should we give him a chance to change? Even if he does, does he deserve the opportunity to profit off his reputation with a line of cream paints?

Influencers and celebrities don’t have to be saints ­— but they do need to be likeable enough if their goal is selling products, and in Charles’ case, makeup, as a forward-facing founder.

Even under the best circumstances, most influencer-founded brands have struggled to turn their followings into real businesses. Painted is self-funded and will be sold on its own website. With Charles’ notoriety, it will be difficult to convince retailers and investors to get on board. (Though some will no doubt look the other way if the brand does well out of the gate).

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In the coming days and weeks, Charles will undoubtedly engage in a wave of press and marketing for the launch of Painted. Customers might be swayed to purchase the line once (especially if they were fans before), but it’s unclear whether shoppers will stick around. Charles may have been an early creator to break into beauty, but a new, and probably less problematic, TikTok influencer is born every day.

Editor’s Note: This article was amended on Aug. 3. 2023, to clarify James Charles’ representative’s response for comment.

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